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A cultural history of the O.J. Simpson trial

O.J. Simpson sits at his arraignment in Superior Court in Los Angeles on July 22, 1994, where he pleaded "absolutely, 100 percent not guilty" on murder charges.
O.J. Simpson sits at his arraignment in Superior Court in Los Angeles on July 22, 1994, where he pleaded "absolutely, 100 percent not guilty" on murder charges. Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Jonny Walfisz
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Dubbed "the trial of the century", here's how the O.J. Simpson murder case influenced popular culture.

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O.J. Simpson, the NFL player and actor whose career was overshadowed by his acquittal from charges that he murdered his wife Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman in 1994, has died aged 76.

The Buffalo Bills running back was later found liable for their deaths in a separate civil trial. His family confirmed yesterday that Simpson died after battling prostate cancer “surrounded by his children and grandchildren”.

Simpson’s highly publicised arrest and consequent trial sparked huge conversations across America and the world around racism, as it was dubbed “the trial of the century”. One of the enduring legacies of the trial was its impact on popular culture.

The trial of O.J. Simpson is one of the most recognisable cultural events of the 90s and has shown up in everything from dramatisations of the trial, rap lyrics, cutaway jokes in sitcoms, to even a reference in a popular children’s animated film.

A white Ford Bronco, driven by Al Cowlings carrying O.J. Simpson, is trailed by Los Angeles police cars as it travels on a freeway in Los Angeles, 17 June 1994
A white Ford Bronco, driven by Al Cowlings carrying O.J. Simpson, is trailed by Los Angeles police cars as it travels on a freeway in Los Angeles, 17 June 1994Joseph R. Villarin/AP

Here are some of the most notable times the trial was referenced in culture.

Adaptations

The trial itself has been directly adapted into multiple formats. Fox jumped on the bandwagon first and released The O.J. Simpson Story in 1995 with Bobby Hosea playing Simpson and Jessica Tuck as Brown. This was largely a sensationalised version of the story and it wasn’t until 2000 when CBS broadcast American Tragedy that a more measured take on the case was released. American Tragedy followed the murder case from the perspective of the legal prosecution against and defence for Simpson.

There weren’t many other truly excellent adaptations of the highly publicised trial until in 2016 when two came along at once.

Gooding Jr. and Schwimmer in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Gooding Jr. and Schwimmer in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime StoryFX

The first was the debut series of American Crime Story, subtitled The People vs. O.J. Simpson. The acclaimed dramatisation featured Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson with impressive performances from Sterling K. Brown as co-prosecutor Christopher Darden and David Schwimmer as defence attorney Robert Kardashian.

Five-part documentary O.J.: Made in America was also heaped with praise and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for its exploration of race and celebrity. A small lasting legacy of the documentary is that the Oscar’s changed the documentary category rules to exclude multi-part or limited series after its win.

References

In 1994, comedian Norm Macdonald started anchoring the Weekend Update section of NBC’s popular show Saturday Night Live (SNL). Macdonald’s tenure as the host of the Weekend Update is often defined by the comedian’s obsession with covering the trial.

Macdonald was relentless in using his role as anchor to make jokes about Simpson and label him a murderer with lines like “According to retailers the most popular Halloween mask this year is O.J. Simpson. And the most popular Halloween greeting is ‘I’ll kill you and that guy who’s bringing over your glasses… or treat’.”

Macdonald’s tenure at the Weekend Update was cut short in 1998 when he was fired by NBC president and friend of Simpson Don Ohlmeyer – which the comedian claimed was due to the jokes he was making.

The trial and its influence on conversations about race in America was heavily referenced in the Jay-Z song ‘The Story of O.J.’. The first single on the rapper’s 2017 album 4:44, it’s refrain “I’m not Black, I’m O.J.” implied that through wealth and status, both Jay-Z and Simpson were able to transcend race in the US.

While ‘The Story of O.J.’ was nominated for three Grammys, it also attracted controversy for one line which critics accused of antisemitism.

As a result of its publicity, the murder trial has featured as a gag in countless sitcoms, including Seinfeld, The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

The sitcoms referencing the “trial of the century” is expected, but it’s also been referenced in places you might not expect.

2004 children’s animated film Shrek 2 made direct reference to the case when main characters Shrek, Donkey (magically turned into a white horse) and Puss in Boots are arrested. The arrest is depicted as a news segment about a slow police chase following a “white bronco”, mirroring the events of Simpson’s own arrest following him not turning himself in.

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